Demolition equipment knocked down the historic 1816 Georgian Zimmerman mansion in Maxatawny Township on Aug. 3.
A few days earlier, Maxatawny Township approved the permit for the destruction of the historic building located at the intersection of Long Lane Road and Route 222 in Maxatawny Township.
While some residents questioned how Maxatawny Township officials could allow the property owner to tear down the historic landmark, Township Manager Justin Yaich said, “It’s legal in what he’s doing and there’s nothing we can do (to stop the demolition of the home).”
Yaich said that the township does not have any ordinances that would prohibit the removal of the house by the developer Nick Ciccone, of Nimaris Construction, L.P., in Bath. Yaich said a possible gas station and/or convenience store was discussed but no official plans have been presented to the township yet.
“As far as taking the home down, he’s completely in the right,” said Yaich. “The township doesn’t have any ordinances that prohibit him removing the home.”
Yaich also noted that the home is not listed on the National Historic Register which would have protected the building from destruction.
“Certainly, it’s a historical home,” he said about the mansion built in 1816.
Also, Yaich said the township is looking into the report of a cemetery on the property which Ciccone cannot legally disturb that area.
“The township is doing everything it can to preserve the cemetery and it’s integrity,” he said.
By noon on Friday, the building was gone.
“The significance of the building is a matter of interpretation,” said Brendan Strasser, board member of the Kutztown Historical Society. “The Zimmerman family, along with the Siegfried, Levan, Kemp, and Kutz families, was among the first to settle the East Penn Valley, part of the very first wave of Huguenot and Palatine immigration to eastern Berks County.”
According to Strasser, Sebastian Zimmerman married Anna Elizabeth Levan, forging a relationship between two important establishing families. The Zimmerman name is found variously in Berks Colonial and Revolutionary War records.
“If the original part of the house dated to ca. 1723, with enlargements dating to 1816 (as per the front face date stones), it was certainly the oldest extant structure in the entire East Penn Valley (excepting perhaps a lone contender in Oley Township), and only a handful of structures throughout Berks County have claims to greater age,” Strasser told The Patriot.
Strasser said that the 1723 date is accurate, there are few extant structures of greater age in Lehigh, Northampton, Lancaster, or Lebanon counties as well, and only a very limited number in the lower counties of Bucks, Montgomery, Chester and Delaware.
“However, I cannot verify the 1723 date. But to provide some context to that claim, the first birth recorded to parents of European descent in this area is traditionally said to have been a daughter born into the Siegfried family in 1725, only two years later, so any building in this vicinity that dates to 1723 would have been built almost immediately after settlement by some of earliest arrivals to the area,” said Strasser.
Is there anything that the Kutztown Historical Society can do to protect other historic buildings in this area?
“Most people lack even a basic understanding when it comes to the protection of historic properties or the role of a local historical society in that protection,” responded Strasser. “Even placement on the National Register of Historic Places does not offer a building protection against demolition; only National Landmark status - such as for, say, Independence Hall - guarantees that protection. In such circumstances, a local historical society such as the Kutztown Area Historical Society has no legal standing to prevent any sort of demolition, modification, alteration, renovation or redevelopment of any building or parcel.”
Strasser said the Kutztown Historical Society is, however, the agency of record for much of the East Penn Valley and so is officially consulted by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission as well as the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation when historic properties are potentially threatened by Commonwealth initiatives such as highway widening or bridge replacement. In this case, he said the former Zimmerman property was privately owned, and the Commonwealth is not currently involved in redevelopment or modification of the site.
“Unfortunately, many of our local residents are either uninformed or misinformed, with the result being knee-jerk reactions when news of this sort hits the newspapers,” said Strasser. “By the time such news hits, of course, the story’s already over, and it’s far too late to take effective action.”
“If residents really want to become involved, the important time to act is before historic structures are threatened by volunteering with their local, county, and regional historical societies to assemble historic property inventories and work with property owners to encourage responsible maintenance and restoration, and by encouraging local elected and appointed officials (Borough Councils, Township Boards of Supervisors, municipal Planning Commissions) to enact ordinances, revise property codes, and establish relevant zoning so as to protect historic sites and structures,” said Strasser.